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Students' desks were long, slanting wooden shelves that were attached to the side walls. Students sat on wooden benches or stools. Girls sat at the desks on one side of the room; boys sat on the other side.
I Remember . . .
Letitia Youmans, Campaign Echoes: the Autobiography of Mrs. Letitia Youmans, the Pioneer of the White Ribbon Movement in Canada (Toronto: William Briggs, 1893), p. 29.
At the front of the classroom was the simple wooden desk or table for the teacher. Attendance was taken every day and records of who was at school and who was absent were kept in the teacher's register.
Paper was in short supply in early schoolhouses. Students used slates, a kind of small hand-held blackboard. Slate pencils were used to write on these boards. The slate and pencil were made of hard rock and students wrote by scratching the board with the pencil.
There was no electricity in these early schoolhouses. The main source of illumination was the light that came through the windows. Oil lamps were used at certain times of the year. It was often dark in the room and students had to do their work as best they could without much light. Coal-oil lamps filled with kerosene were used in some schoolhouses although they smoked when placed in a draft. Lamps were sometimes mounted on metal brackets on the walls. In the summer, when the windows were open, the schoolroom buzzed with pesky flies because there were no screens.
I Remember . . .
Letitia Youmans, Campaign Echoes: the Autobiography of Mrs. Letitia Youmans, the Pioneer of the White Ribbon Movement in Canada (Toronto: William Briggs, 1893), p. 30, 31.
Punishment for an assortment of undesirable behaviours could result in the use of a whipping stick or rod. These were made from hickory, willow or birch branches. Some teachers made the student cut his or her own stick from a tree in the schoolyard. Students sometimes went home with red marks on their legs from the whipping.
There were many other forms of punishment such as holding heavy firewood in outstretched arms, standing on one foot for a long period of time, wearing a dunce's cap, kneeling in an uncomfortable position, having your ears or hair pulled, and being pinched.
Early teachers spent most of their time teaching students the basics: reading, writing and arithmetic. Many families believed that if you could read the Bible, you would be a good Christian. Having good handwriting was considered a sign of a cultured person. Being able to write and do arithmetic was important for keeping accounts as a farmer, storekeeper, or other business person.
Sometimes, there were very few books in the schoolhouse so the Bible was used for reading, as well as a primer. A primer contained the alphabet, numbers, spelling words and poems. It was used by students who were learning to read and write.
Hop over to What Were the Schoolbooks Like to have a look at some more early schoolbooks.
Early schoolhouses had no running water. Water had to be fetched from the well, if there was one, and if not, then from a local brook, stream, river, or nearby house. Students would take turns fetching fresh water for the school. Water was kept in a basin on a small table or bench. Students were expected to keep their hands clean. Drinking water was kept in a container, preferably with a lid to keep out dust and flies. The same metal dipper or drinking cup was used by all the students to take a drink and only one hand towel was available for all to share. So much for keeping your germs to yourself!
There were no ballpoint pens, let alone felt pens or gel pens for early students! They used a pen called a quill, made from a goose feather. The hard end of the feather was cut into a sharp point and the tip was dipped in an inkwell or a bottle of ink. The teacher was in charge of keeping enough feathers sharp, but sometimes older students helped to keep everyone supplied. Unfortunately, this type of pen left a lot of ink on the page and sometimes caused ugly blots that marred a page of beautiful handwriting. To soak up excess ink, blotting paper was pressed onto fresh writing.
"Ink was made by the parents, by boiling soft maple bark in rain water for a couple of hours, straining or filtering it, and putting into it sufficient copperas, or sulphate of iron, to get the required colour-black."
Jean Cochrane, The School (Markham, Ont.: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1986), p. 17.